Elijah Phinehas ben Meir

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ELIJAH PHINEHAS BEN MEIR (c. 1742–1821), scholar, kabbalist, and maskil. Elijah was born in Vilna, but in his youth, after his father's death, he traveled extensively among the Jewish communities of Europe. In each city that he visited he furthered his Jewish learning, in particular his knowledge of Kabbalah, as well as his secular studies. Elijah became known through his work Sefer ha-Berit, the first edition of which appeared anonymously in Brno in 1797. This work enjoyed a relatively wide circulation and was particularly well received in Haskalah circles in Galicia and in Berlin, where, according to Elijah's own testimony, it was regarded as a kind of encyclopedia of the natural sciences, astronomy, and theology. When the work was attributed to *Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, and to Moses *Mendelssohn, Elijah had the second edition published under his own name (Zolkiew, 1807, with additions and emendations; third edition, Vilna, 1818). The work is divided into two parts. The first, composed of 21 treatises, deals with science and philosophy; the second, comprising 14 treatises, deals with ethics and Kabbalah. The section on science was already outdated at the time of its composition, for, while it contains new empirical data, it embodies a conception of the universe that is based on medieval Aristotelian philosophy and on the Kabbalah of Isaac *Luria. Elijah ignores the principles of Galileo and Newton in physics, and of Lavoisier in chemistry, maintaining, for instance, that the earth is stationary. The section on ethics and Kabbalah, which Elijah intended to be the main part of the work, is modeled after Ḥayyim *Vital's Sha'arei Kedushah. In this section Elijah accepts *Judah Halevi's view that the Jewish people is on the fifth level in the ascending scale of creation - mineral, vegetable, animal, rational, and Israel, and he makes use of the kabbalistic concept of the five souls inherent in rational beings – nefesh, ru'aḥ, neshamah, ḥayyah, yeḥidah, and of the doctrine of the Sefirot. Turning to more practical matters Elijah discusses the means by which one can prepare oneself for communion with the holy spirit (ru'aḥ ha-kodesh). Since the principal requisite is "the fulfillment of the commandments for their own sake," he provides guidance for the observance of the commandments, according to the teachings of Isaac Luria. The love of one's neighbor, Elijah maintains, is one of the foundations of the service of God. However, higher than the love of human beings is the love of God, which he discusses in the final section of the work, entitled "Love and Joy," and which he defines as the soul's cleaving to God. In addition to Sefer ha-Berit, Elijah wrote a commentary on Immanuel Ḥai *Ricchi's Mishnat Ḥasidim (published in 1889); Mitzvot Tovim, dealing with the reasons for the commandments (Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot); Matmonei Mistarim, on the combinations of letters; and Beit Yoẓer, a commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah. These last three works are extant only in manuscript.


Ha-Me'assef (1809), 68–75; Letteris, in: Bikkurim (1864/65), 51; S.J. Fuenn, Kiryah Ne'emanah (19152), 206; A. Walden, Shem ha-Gedolim he-Ḥadash (1864), s.v.Phineḥas Elijah of Vilna; H.D. Friedberg, Luḥot Zikkaron (1904), 93.

[Meir Hillel Ben-Shammai]